It’s midnight and it’s freezing. The tiny industrial park is dead and empty, save for one open garage bay. Bathed in harsh lights and fatigued by 48 hours of continuous work, six guys are dirty and bloody trying to turn the husk of an old BMW into a race car. They don’t have enough time. They don’t have the right parts. But they’re working for Bill Caswell, and he wasn’t about to be discouraged by such trivialities.
Calamity, chaos and extra effort in the eleventh hour are all how Caswell conducts business. Once, he was like so many people who love cars—a suit with a boring desk job who dreamed of going on wild adventures and running any car he could deem close to up to the task in any race he could find. Now he’s living the dream, building cars and driving all over the world. But behind all the Instagram glory there is sacrifice.
Caswell sleeps wherever, or sometimes not at all, busts his knuckles dumps his soul into wild, sketchy engineering projects and sometimes comes out with literally nothing to show for it. The fact that sometimes he actually succeeds in satisfying his epic whims, like “wouldn’t it be hilarious if we raced this junkyard car against professionals,” is part of the reason he’s emerged as kind of a legend in the automotive community.
This feels like one of the times he won’t. Less than 12 hours before the start of the ultra-competitive and impossibly brutal Baja 1000 off-road rally, Caswell’s friends are working themselves to the bone to help him realize his dream of building an ancient BMW E30 into a viable off-road race car.
I guess I actually mean, “rebuild.”
Caswell’s vehicle, the “Baja Pig,” looks more like a sick breeding experiment between a sedan, Star Wars prop and monster truck than a car. But it actually has raced in the Baja before. It’s just never been close to finishing.
The people hammering away at it this time around came together from hundreds of miles apart to be cogs in Caswell’s 2016 Baja 1000 attempt. Their hope was to prove the old and unconventional race car, and its equally eccentric owner, could hold their own against the racing veterans at Baja, one of the most grueling races on earth.
That, and everybody wanted an excuse to party in Mexico.
But as the night before the Baja turned into the wee hours of November 18th, race day, “unlikely” started looking too much like “impossible” and even the indefatigable Caswell ran out of gas. I eventually found him collapsed on the ground using a duct-taped Patagonia jacket as a sleeping bag.
Spoiler alert: Caswell and company didn’t finish the race. They never even made it to the starting line. But thing about Caswell is, he doesn’t really have to pull off heroics to have an adventure. He’s a twirling Tasmanian devil of chaos and energy and if you’re anywhere near him... you’re a part of it. Caswell’s personality is big enough to fill a book. As a matter of fact, Hollywood already has a contract drawn up for the first half of his life story.
No, seriously. Six years ago Caswell’s insane experience punting a (different) beater BMW through the 2010 World Rally Championship in Mexico as recounted by Sam Smith on Jalopnik caught the attention of basically everybody on the internet, including actor and producer Jeremy Renner, who’s planning to make the story into a movie called Slingshot.
Those of you familiar with the story of how a $500 Craigslist car beat $400,000 rally racers might already appreciate Caswell’s special brand of crazy. I thought I did too. Then I spent a couple days locked in a garage with him and had to learn more about him than I ever wanted to. But I also got to see how he’s uniquely successful, and why his friends would fly to his garage from all over the country to help him work on a moonshot Baja 1000 project.
Smith’s story about Caswell’s Craigslist rally car triumph is as quintessential David-beating-Goliath as you can get. Six years later, Caswell is still riding the momentum of relevance from that unlikely triumph.
Now that he’s one of the car scene’s established colorful characters, I set out to find how he’s really managed to sustain this “hot-shoe” hobo life situation for so long now. More importantly, is it actually possible to travel the world driving incredible cars without a fixed address or a real job? And is the Caswell myth anything close to the Caswell reality?
Like every other “car guy” you’ve ever heard interviewed, Caswell was “always into cars.” He played with dinky old BMWs before college, got into shifter carts, got involved in amateur wheel-to-wheel racing after that...
“You want to go back even further? Like how this whole thing started?” he told me. “It started because I was playing chess. Right?”
Caswell may be from Chicago but he’s embraced the Californian habit of ending statements with a questioning inflection. He also grinds words out of his mouth like a snow blower running through a quarry. When he talks—and he will, at length—his voice gives him a unique intonation somewhere between a chain-smoking trucker and a surfer.
“I was playing chess on this chess pavilion in Chicago,” he continued. “I’d go for a run after work and put a couple dollars in my pocket, and I’d play the homeless guys in chess for a dollar a game. And they’d beat me pretty damn regularly. One guy smoked a crack pipe while he was playing a game with me and, like, beat me in a game of logic and strategy. And I got really angry.”
This seems like a good time to make it clear that Caswell has a tendency to indulge in hyperbole, and he never answers a question without two or three layers of backstory. So I’ll fast forward the origin story for you just a little: Caswell went on to say he bought a chess book to beat his homeless friends, but they stopped playing him when he started winning. So he went back to the bookstore and started reading about history, quickly lost interest in that, found a Chilton BMW manual, and somehow was so captivated by its wiring diagrams and faded black-and-white pictures that he used the book to teach himself how to do an engine swap on his first non-running vehicle: an E30 BMW. He’s really got a thing for these cars.
“The first time I worked on a car was changing an engine,” he said. “Never done an oil change, never done spark plugs… like, ‘Chapter Two’ was ‘Changing The Engine.’ I just went through, looked at lots of pictures, disconnect this, disconnect that, get a hoist, I rented a crane... bought another engine, threw it in the back of my mom’s car, and drove it home.”
That’s a pretty bold dive down the rabbit hole of cars to take off the bat. But as you’re starting to understand, Caswell crashes through life in full-measures only.
“So I [had] like three months of my life into this car and it [was] still just a $500 E30.” Caswell remembers thinking. “What do I do with it now?”
The answer he arrived at was “take it racing,” and he got talked into trying autocross despite, well, autocross seeming kind of lame. “I was like, ‘I’m not racing in a fucking parking lot, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of.’” He added: “Of course I was awful at it.”
The car-craziness snowballed from there though, and he started playing with vehicles every opportunity he got.
But like so many of us at that point, Caswell went to college, got a job, went to business school, got a better job, and eventually ended up spending more time dreaming about driving than actually doing it.
But the metamorphosis into the Caswell we know today, into the living caricature who parties his way around the velvet ropes, makes miracles out of junkyard parts and gets his friends to willingly work for three days straight to help him build a car against impossible odds, really started happening in 2009.
That was the year Sam Smith, Caswell’s old buddy who was a writer for Jalopnik (and later an editor at Road & Track magazine) got Caswell to try off-road rally racing in Tennessee.
Caswell recalled the only advice he got about how to do that kind of driving, from one of the race organizers through the open window of his car at the starting line: “He told me ‘You should only be having, like, a moment, a couple times a race.’” That “moment” meaning an incident scary enough to make you soil your seat.
“Yeah, okay,” Caswell recalled replying skeptically. “No you don’t understand,” the marshal continued, “most road racers come here, drive at the limit like they do at the track, and they’re off on the second stage.”
How do you think it worked out for Caswell?
“Sure enough, second stage, I crash. Smash the radiator. We’re out of the race. But I hated going back to that desk so much.”
Caswell was working in finance at the time, specifically in a sector he described as “the toxic waste that blew up the economy in ‘07 and ‘08.” He cut a deal with the bank he worked for and bailed, freeing him up to live the story that made him internet-famous and is still supposed to be a movie someday.
“I find an E30 for like $1,200 on Craigslist, we go look at it and it’s got huge 17 or 18-inch chrome rims on it. And I’m like ‘the car’s great other than the wheels,’ and the guy’s like, ‘dude that’s the best part! If you don’t want the wheels, like, $500.’” And thus, the world’s most famous $500 BMW was born.
After the story of Caswell’s epic underdog adventure in Mexico went viral—it remains one of the most-read Jalopnik stories ever—he rode the momentum to drive Pikes Peak, heaps of other rallies, the Nürburgring and Baja.
In the process of building his own personal off-beat motorsports program, Caswell had basically bought up the entire Miller Welders catalog of fabrication equipment. Noticing that a picture of his shop in Grassroots Motorsports “looked like a damn Miller ad,” he pitched the company to sponsor his idea for a “Caswell Buggy.”
What he had in mind was an E30 BMW on huge tires, with a custom chassis and steering system to hold them to the car. What it would become was the “Baja Pig.”
Miller gave him support, all Bill had to do was build the car on the show floor at SEMA as part of the company’s product display.
And that car did end up in the 2010 Baja 1000, but only made it a couple hundred miles into the action before it jettisoned its steering rack and forced Caswell to quit the race after spending a night in the desert.
While his car went to shit, his racing career certainly didn’t. Caswell has been going strong getting himself back to Pikes Peak, WRC Mexico, the Mint 400, Targa Newfoundland, LeMons beater-car races and a massive list of other automotive events in between since that wimpy little BMW steering rack let him down in Baja.
And yet Caswell doesn’t appear, at first glance, to have an existence outside of all that. The guy seems to have an infinite supply of resources and cars stashed all over the world, but no house or apartment in his own name. I’ve found him sleeping on garage floors and seen him holding it down in high-rises with Hollywood royalty. In the same week. He’s a hard man to pin down.
“When I left for the Nürburgring in 2014 is when I started the actual ‘homeless Bill Caswell program,’” he explained when I asked him how long he’s been, you know, “crashing wherever.” The reality of the situation isn’t quite as filthy as sleeping in the back of his old BMW X5, though I’ve seen him do that a few times too.
“I made a fortune as a banker, then I got my severance package, and because I was severed I actually got unemployment, right?” Caswell admitted. “Then I had a Lotus Exige and a BMW X5, and they both got totaled, and got insurance checks from that. And dude, I sold my Caswell shirts! I mean I sold, like, crates of those. Well over 10,000 shirts.”
So he’d have no trouble paying rent. He just doesn’t want to. Or have to. He splits time between his dad’s house in Maine, the Team O’Neil Rally School in New Hampshire and his mom’s house in Chicago (“where I build most of my cars,” Caswell explained. The basement there has “three or four dismantled cars” stashed in it.) Lately, you’re most likely to catch Caswell staying with his significant other in Hollywood, or hanging out near San Diego at the off-road shop SRD or fabrication outfit EV West, which occupies garage space Caswell used to co-lease with the company’s proprietor Michael Bream.
Eventually, he went halfsies with on the two-bay SoCal workspace where we began our story and I got my first real sample of the Bill Caswell Lifestyle.
“Yep, that’s where I lived. For like five months,” Caswell told me between bites of a chicken sandwich made of equal parts meat and automotive grease. He was referring to the couch I was trying to pretend I hadn’t just spilled guacamole on. I decided not to eat the chip I’d just recovered from between the cushions.
After parting ways with his ex-wife, Caswell moved into the shop he shared with Bream. “As a car guy, there’s really no better place to live than a shop. And there’s a brewery like 20 feet from the front door.”
I tried asking if he missed having personal space. Or his own shower. Or like, rooms not stacked to the ceiling with what most people might call “rusty trash.” But it didn’t seem like the thought had occurred to him.
“I’ve got a place to stay in three corners of the country, plus I’m over in Europe watching racing all the time, like, why would I pay rent?” he said.
As a rolling stone Caswell has done a good job avoiding the moss that is responsibility, but he’s had no trouble making friends all over the world. Friends like Travis Marr, Paul Donlin, John Ackerman, Tim McNulty and Eric Frentress who congregated with Caswell to try and turn his twisted hulk of an old BMW into a vaguely legitimate Baja 1000 race car.
Underdog characters against a longshot objective with the glory of an epic upset on the line—all the makings of a great story, or just another weekend with Bill Caswell. Either way, these guys were pulled in by Caswell’s gravity and kept motivated by his gregariousness.
By now you’re starting to see why people like living vicariously through this guy: His life looks like fun. But the reality of Caswell’s crusades are a lot more about frustration, sweat, pain and exhaustion than sliding around corners and spraying champagne over victory wreaths, as I learned for myself watching this Baja project come together.
Of course I was excited to hear Caswell was planning to take a bite out of the Baja 1000. I ran it myself in the winter of 2015.
Mexico’s western peninsula is the perfect place to get into just enough trouble, or entirely too much, either of which makes good kindling for a story. The problem becomes whether or not you can publish it, but that’s my favorite problem to have. Caswell felt the same way.
“You’ve got to come down and see this thing,” he told me on the phone, about a week and a half to race day. Caswell’s voice is coarse in person. On the phone, it’s like a spaceship’s distress signal in a sci-fi movie, loud and apocalyptic.
CRACKLE CRACKLE “Mexico!” CRACKLE CRACKLE “Getting the Bimmer going again!” CRACKLE “You’re coming with!”
If I wore glasses this would have been a great time to deliberately remove them and rub my face to look pensive and exhausted. Instead, I spun around in my office chair while Caswell rambled about the technical nuances of the new home-brewed steering rack design he couldn’t wait to wring out in the race.
“So who did you pre-run with,” I asked, inquiring how they’d scout the race and make course notes ahead of time, a necessary evil in Baja.
I don’t know why I bothered to ask. I knew full well the answer would be something like: “No pre-run. Dude, the car’s not even going testing. We’re just gonna sew it up and send it. Last time the steering rack killed us. This time I’ve got that covered. Ford Raptor rack. I just need to get that mounted, pick up the engine, drop it in, sew it up and send it.”
Simple, he says.
“Be Unprepared” is chapter one of the Caswellian rulebook, but I never did figure out if Caswell’s dismissal of the pre-run as “We know the roads down there pretty well” was meant to be sarcastic. I was sure it didn’t bode well for our chances.
When the pace is high, like in Baja’s most competitive car race for example, “knowing the roads pretty well” doesn’t give you any more insight than having seen a postcard from the place. There will be dirt and holes and turns and cacti, but the key is knowing where the big ones are.
The point of a pre-run is not to teach you how to drive in dirt. It’s to decorate your map with the minefield of holes, boulders soft sections and other hazards that can catch you out and end your race. Race organizers provide a line to follow on a GPS file. The rest is up to you.
It’s then up to the co-driver to be watching a GPS screen and calling out every waypoint so drivers know when to hang left to avoid a ditch or be ready for a rock garden after a rise.
So Caswell’s crew would be driving blind, in a car that’d have zero miles on it. This is where an intelligent person would dismiss their chances of finishing the race. But like the optimistic idiot I am, that only reverse-psychology’d me into deciding—yeah, but imagine if they did it?
“Alright man, I’ll come down and check this thing out,” I offered, hedging enough to have an exit strategy in case Caswell’s car looked like as much of a death trap as I was picturing. “We’ll get on the same page with the build and go from there.”
On November 8th, ten days before green flags at the 2016 Baja 100, I was at Strategic Racing Design. It’s a shop near San Diego that builds off-road race cars for high-budget privateers. It might not be as sophisticated as a factory team facility, but it’s not the kind of place you’d bring your truck for an oil change or a lift kit installation either. SRD is primarily occupied with big-ticket builds, fabricating complete and competitive desert vehicles.
My plan was to suss out Caswell’s program and get a look at the “car” he was planning to compete with.
“Everybody told me, if anybody could get the Pig ready for this race, it was these guy,” Caswell said while we walked through neatly organized piles of steel stock, dune buggy builds, half-finished Frankencars and a gloriously tidy trophy truck stripped of its bodywork for pre-Baja servicing.
How he got from “hearing about this place” to charming his way into borrowing a chunk of floor space and tool access, well, that’s what makes Caswell so magical. He dismisses it as being good at making friends. I think it’s as simple as the respect his authenticity brings him. Caswell will be the first to admit he’s not the world’s best welder or driver, but he commits to his motto: “Build, race, party.” And everything captured within his aura can’t help but have a good time. It’s just that sometimes he “builds, races and parties” in the wrong order.
By the time I’d arrived at the shop it was already the middle of the afternoon. The BMW shell was sitting on 75 percent of a fabricated frame with no engine, steering or front suspensions system. Or interior. Or controls. Ten days to race day. Ten days to do, basically, what some Baja teams take the better part of a year doing– building the car.
There were hours and days of work the thing needed to drive itself out of the shop let alone go racing and there was approximately zero being done.
I was partially to blame here. I let Caswell yap and yap and buy me tacos and shoot some videos while he definitely should have been putting in a solid work day. I mean, I certainly wasn’t about to touch the damn car. Never mind the fact that I don’t know the first thing about running a welder; the Baja Pig looked so flimsy I was afraid to rest a beer can on the roof.
Caswell wanted to discuss race strategy, and at this point I was still convinced his comical optimism was an act. But I humored him anyway.
“If you don’t feel comfortable about it at all, you’re more than welcome to just chase with us,” he said to me a few times. I’d already mentioned I’d navigated a few hundred miles of the same race more than twice, but this time I guess he heard me.
“Oh, dude,” Caswell turned around to one of his friends, indistinctly tapping away at the back of the carcass of a car. “He’s got more miles on the course than us.”
So at this point the team had no car, no pre-run, effectively no experience between six people and one week to get off the ground an onto the starting line. We’d officially pivoted from “longshot” to “hopeless,” but everybody in earshot of Caswell’s voice was infected with his ambition.
Caswell’s generosity doesn’t hurt, either. Despite the unconventional sleeping arrangements, he’s no deadbeat. He broke out his credit card every time anybody wanted a snack or a beer or a hotel room. He Uber’d me from Los Angeles to San Diego when my truck wouldn’t run. Casual sponsorships help defray his parts costs, but his operation is basically all self-funded.
I talked to Travis Marr, longtime Caswell associate and alleged co-driver for this project, about the reality of their prospects.
“He’s never been on time for race,” Marr said. “This is just how this stuff goes. But we always make things happen.” He was reveling in the ridiculousness of the ordeal right along with Caswell.
By the time I went home, well into the night, the car looked exactly the same as it had when I’d rolled up. Decidedly incomplete.
“Just let me know when you’re leaving San Diego,” I said as we walked to my ride. “I’m in, I guess.”
Early Thursday, 24 hours to the first vehicles race start and maybe 30 hours until Caswell’s window, I got his phone call: “We’re trying to leave by noon, one latest.” I prodded him on the car’s progress.
“Well my steering system’s totally fucked,” he told me. “That Raptor rack? Didn’t work at all. Front tires are so toe’d in the car can’t even move. So we’re starting over there. New system. But from the firewall back, the car’s completely done. We’re gonna send this thing.”
For those of you less familiar with a car’s anatomy, the firewall sits between you and your engine. Spelled out even more plainly: most of the important stuff is not “behind” it.
Of course I would soon learn there were plenty of other essential details Caswell was glossing over anyway. Seats and gauges and an electrical system and a steering wheel were still yet to be attached. Behind the firewall.
But there I was, getting sucked into the gravitational pull of Caswell’s conviction. And after a couple hours in the car I was at EV West, where Caswell was running around like a mad professor in his laboratory and where I started my story originally.
Caswell had been kicked out of SRD when the crew there shipped out for their own Baja mission, because they actually wanted to get into town in time to start the race they actually had prepared for ahead of time.
“Dude, this steering rack,” Caswell shook his head. “I was so sure the Raptor rack was going to work. Justin (SRD’s proprietor) said it was going to work.”
For the first time since I’d started following the crusade, Caswell sounded flummoxed. I didn’t have much sympathy though. You can’t expect anything to “just work” when you’re building something as complicated as a race car from scratch.
The steering rack was a particular emotional sore spot since of course that’s what killed Caswell’s Baja run in 2010. The BMW unit, never designed to take anything close to the relentless bludgeoning it got in the race, failed after about 200 miles and left Caswell cold and stranded.
Now he was working up a new unit of his own design: two heavy-duty steering racks mounted in a row, to accommodate the vehicle’s ridiculously wide track. This is not a design I’ve ever seen anywhere. It’s not something I’ve ever heard anyone endorse ever. Frankly, I don’t think it makes any sense. There’s no added durability bonus since they’re set up in series, just a lot of extra weight.
But Caswell insisted it was “going to be awesome.” I don’t think we got more of an engineering explanation than: “Dude, I was telling people to do 4WD Trophy Trucks ten years ago and everybody said ‘that’s dumb.’ What’s the thing now? Yeah. They’re making 4WD Trophy Trucks! Right?”
People are starting to experiment with 4WD Trophy Trucks. But I think one good skid plate would have done a lot more for Caswell’s steering-survivability than the two-headed dragon thing I was watching him try to cram into the car. But what did I know?
On this day the tone was much different from what it’d been at SRD. Caswell and his team had clearly been sweating, that much was apparently from the condition of their clothing. I thought it best to keep my skepticism to myself and simply observe for a bit.
Between rips of a drill press and screaming angle grinders I worked my way through the crew to find out what the cult of Caswell was all about for them.
Marr was a Porsche tech and off-road enthusiast. Paul Donlin was an engineer at Roush. John Ackerman used to work at Valvoline. Tim McNulty seemed to be rapidly shifting between tightening bolts and taking naps in the back, and Eric Frentress had just shown up from Washington state in a manual-swapped, off-road built Isuzu VehiCross.
They worked together. They threw parts at each other, cussed and high-fived. Nobody was being paid, everyone was fixing Caswell’s car on their own precious vacation time. Every hour or so his gravelly voice would boom over whatever tool was running. Not directions. Things like: “Did I tell you guys the porno Porsche story yet?”
The crew would gather like kids at story time. Caswell regaled us with yarns that invariably involved a minor celebrity, intoxication and some absurd enterprise that may or may not have been fact-checkable. After one particularly colorful story about things Caswell had seen in some Los Angeles warehouse, Eric turned to me and said, “and that’s why I wanted to come down here.”
As I’ve spent the last few thousand words illustrating, Caswell didn’t have to take them on an adventure. He was the adventure.
Good thing, because the mission to get this jank-ass car to race in Baja couldn’t have been further from succeeding.
At around midnight, 10 hours to the green flag, we were a six hour drive from the starting line. A few of us retired to a hotel while Caswell and McNulty toiled on. The plan was for them to finish the car, find a trailer and a tow truck because the poorly prearranged one had bailed, head to Mexico and we’d meet them the next day. The rest of us would go to the garage in the morning, clean up and follow the race car to Ensenada.
The car still needed its insane steering system connected, a whole nest of wiring tucked away and the welds on the coolant plumbing looked like a kindergartener’s Play-Doh project.
When we got back and lifted up the shop door, we realized Caswell wasn’t in Mexico. He was passed out under a car in yoga pants and a few tattered shards of a down jacket with a deep layer of automotive grease clogging every crack of his skin.
Caswell fought against futility all like a fish flapping in the clutches of a bear, but the final stroke was the realization that there was no way to get the Baja Pig to Mexico, even if it could be brought online.
There would be no Baja run this year, but we still got filthy, ate unhealthy food and cursed at cars for a few days, and that’s pretty much the same thing.
At any rate, we had the adventure of The Caswell Experience. And I learned, yes, he is actually as nutty as he seems on social media.
Bill Caswell is something like the embodiment of “slow car fast”—the idea that it’s more fun to push a Miata or an old and underpowered BMW to its limit than keep an ultra-fast Ferrari reigned in safely. He is a professional amateur, crashing full-noise through crazy schemes we all wish we could entertain and earnestly living like he’s got nothing to lose.
It’s amazing how much freedom you unlock when you’re willing to live in the back of a BMW X5, or staying awake for two days straight working a welder.
Caswell’s enthusiasm is so aggressive it can’t be contrived. He’s determined to be different for the sake of standing out, and the “loose-cannon road warrior of the people” is no cultivated caricature. It’s just who he is. And the nuttiness is contagious, which is why all of his friends were smiling at the end of what was objectively a miserable weekend of difficult physical labor with essentially no tangible payoff.
Actually, the Baja Pig did eventually run and drive by the end of the weekend. Just not any further than the office park it was built in.
Maybe that’s a sign it will make it to Baja this year. Maybe.
No matter what, I have a feeling Caswell will have plenty of volunteers to help him try again.